The children’s eyes were as bright as the lights on the enormous Christmas tree in the heart of West Park Village Saturday night.
Holiday excitement was in the air for the hundreds who gathered for the annual Santa Pre-Flight Parade and tree lighting event, sponsored by Westchase Charitable Foundation and World of Westchase.
In its seventh year, this annual event has created a soft spot for both the attendees and the organizers. It was a means to collect gifts for needy children, unite the community, and raise funds, said Dan O’Brien, chairman of the parade, who founded the event years ago.
As a boy, O’Brien was lucky enough to experience parades at an early age, since his father was a firefighter who invited his young son to join him on parade floats. A former board member of WCF with a passion for parades, he combined the two to create the annual Santa Pre-Flight Parade and tree lighting event.
“Seeing the kids’ excitement, then seeing where the gifts actually go and watching the kids receive the gifts makes it so worthwhile,” O’Brien said.
The parade included floats, team mascots and special guests, including Westchase’s Miss Junior Teen USA 2011, Olivia Caputo, and Tampa Bay Woman of the Year 2011, Kristie Johnston.
Santa collected unwrapped gifts for needy children during the parade route. The gifts will be delivered by Sincerely Santa, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s District III Toy Drive, on December 17 at a local church. More than 450 toys were collected last year as the result of this annual parade.
The parade has proven prosperous for local businesses as well.
“It definitely increases traffic to Mi Bebe, especially with it being a children’s event," said Michelle Mendez, manager of Mi Bebe, located in West Park Village. "It puts people in a holiday mood and more inclined to purchase."
Saturday's parade concluded at the West Park Village tree lighting.
The tree lighting event included performer Kardenni, who did tricks and illusions for the captivated audience.
“My favorite part of my job is traveling, meeting new people and entertaining people of all ages,” he said.
Sarah Pender, of West Park Village, was in attendance with her two-year old daughter Addison.
“We moved to Westchase two years ago, and have attended the parade each year" Pender said. "We like the music, kids singing, people chatting, and when Santa comes around the block on the fire truck."